Let me just say at the outset that there are three types of people this message is not directed at. Firstly, if your personal resources are limited due to your current financial situation and you are still somehow making things work – finding ways to stay fit and healthy without the ability to access some sort of training facility – then I offer a tip of the hat to you. Keep doing what you’re doing, as your dedication to your health is both uncommon and admirable. At the other end of the spectrum, if your resources are such that you are able to outfit a complete home gym, with dumbbells, kettlebells, a suspension trainer, bench, boxes, barbells, plates – in other words, a top-notch personal garage gym – well, there’s clearly no need to go into a space where you may have to wait and possibly share equipment to get your training done. Lastly, if you are perfectly happy with your current physical status, and/or you are the type of person that can eat the same three meals a day for weeks or months on end without getting tired of them… then this probably won’t resonate with you either.
If you don’t fit into any of these groups, though, the reality is that investing in a gym membership is not an option, but a requirement.
Variety is a (Necessary) Spice of Life
To be clear, this does not mean that you need to do a different workout every day – in fact, jumping around with a different set of exercises every time you train can be detrimental to your progress (see “Chasing Variety Might be Holding You Back”). But at the same time, never changing the exercises can be just as bad – or worse. Even by doing something as simple as changing the way you do an exercise (ie. a cable press versus a dumbbell press) creates a different stimulus on the targeted muscle group, and this “planned variation” can allow for the consistency with the movement while creating enough diversity to avoid early and long-term plateauing.
Progressing Strength Requires Progressive Loading
While adding repetitions with a set weight (like bodyweight, resistance bands, or a limited selection of dumbbells) will improve one aspect of our strength, it is restricted in the scope of its impact, nonetheless. Most likely the only benefit will be to our muscular endurance rather than our strength (both relative and absolute). Although this is of great value when we are first starting out on our fitness journey, stamina and conditioning improve quickly – and after a certain range of repetitions the impact your training is having on your strength is increasingly diminished. For example – when you start out with your fundamentals, three sets of 12 bodyweight squats may be almost more than you can manage. But assuming you are consistent with your training this will likely become easier within a couple of weeks, and within a month you’ll be able to do four-to-five sets of 15 repetitions. If all you have for home fitness equipment is a skip rope and a couple of 5lbs dumbbells, your only real option is to keep adding reps or decreasing your rest time, both of which improve primarily your stamina and work-capacity… not your strength. Furthermore, even those two fitness elements will cease to improve as there are only so many bodyweight squats that can be done in a fixed amount of time, and if you’re doing four sets of 50 squats week-after-week, a) it’s going to become mind-numbingly repetitive and b) at that point you’re essentially working more on your cardiovascular system than you are on getting stronger.
Exercise Selection is Limited
Lastly, there’s the challenge of movement progression and regression. There are plenty of programs for sale out there that market themselves as “minimal equipment required”, suggesting all you need is a chin-up bar and your own bodyweight – but the thing that these programs don’t mention is that many of what are considered “basic” bodyweight exercises are fundamentally advanced movements that require a steady and consistent progression to master. It’s easy enough to purchase a bar that locks into your doorway for chin-ups online (though I offer a sincere dose of caution in purchasing fitness gear sight-unseen and without a way to verify the quality) but most beginners are not going to be doing chin-ups out of the gate. Even the push-up – the staple of bootcamps and minimalist programs – requires a high level of body awareness, upper body strength and trunk stability which exceeds the abilities of many novices, especially when they are programmed with a high volume (as in the case of the aforementioned bootcamp and minimalist home workouts).
The Investment Need Not Be Large
All this isn’t to say you need to carve out a large budget for a membership, unless you decide that it’s both within your means and something you’d like to dedicate a portion of your income to. Yes, if training at home for you is a “must”, if there’s the physical space, and if the financial resources are available you can look to build a more robust home gym. But there are always lower cost options available as well – many of the large, commercial complexes will offer a relatively low monthly membership in exchange for a long-term commitment. If the duration required for these lower-cost commercial memberships are unappealing then another, and frequently better, option is to look towards community and civic-managed rec centers as these can come in at a lower cost than what you might find even with the long-term commitments of the big commercial gyms. Ultimately, the most important thing is that you stop putting obstacles in the way of your progress by increasing your range of possibilities, whether that’s building more diversity in your home or finding a budget-friendly facility in your neighborhood.